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Q&A

How can fulsome constitute "a case of ironic understatement"?

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Pretend that you're Devil's Advocate. 1. How can you possibly contend that fulsome is "a case of ironic understatement"?

  1. What's ironic?

  2. What's fulsome understating?

"fulsome" feels redundant for 2 reasons.

  1. If something's FULL (e.g. a cup of water), then it's physically impossible to add anything (let alone -SOM "to a considerable degree" — or something) to it.

  2. Fullness implies the notion of "to a considerable degree". If you own a full tank of petrol, then you have petrol to a considerate degree!

fulsome (adj.)

mid-13c., "abundant, plentiful," Middle English compound of ful "full" (see full (adj.)) + -som "to a considerable degree" (see -some (1)). Perhaps a case of ironic understatement. Sense extended to "plump, well-fed" (mid-14c.), then "arousing disgust" (similar to the feeling of having over-eaten), late 14c. Via the sense of "causing nausea" it came to be used of language, "offensive to taste or good manners" (early 15c.); especially "excessively flattering" (1660s). Since the 1960s, however, it commonly has been used in its original, favorable sense, especially in fulsome praise.

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A request for "devil's advocate" answers seems contrary to the spirit of this site. People come here ... (1 comment)
x-post https://www.reddit.com/r/englishteachers/comments/vgn2tx/how_can_fulsome_constitute_a_case_of_... (1 comment)
x-post https://www.reddit.com/r/literature/comments/vgn306/how_can_fulsome_constitute_a_case_of_ironi... (1 comment)
x-post https://www.reddit.com/r/Poetry/comments/vgn3fo/how_can_fulsome_constitute_a_case_of_ironic/ (1 comment)
x-post https://www.reddit.com/r/englishmajors/comments/vgn3jm/how_can_fulsome_constitute_a_case_of_ir... (1 comment)
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1 answer

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Any understatement could be unintentional, or it could be motivated by pragmatic reasons such as hesitation to bring up a controversial point.

However, more often than not, blatant or ridiculously formed understatements are used ironically; and the irony very often concerns the understated quantity itself, indicating an absurdly high degree of that quantity.

"Fulsome" (originally spelt "fulsom") might count as ridiculously formed[1]. As you observed in your point #4, "full" expresses the absolute fullness, while the suffix "-some" indicates a degree, contradicting the fullness. The absurdly high degree of that quantity could then be "over-full", "over-satiated", with negative connotations. That meaning is given as one of the possible/historical meanings in your reference - which would mean that the irony would be getting conventionalized and lexicalized over a part of the word's history. The hypothesized irony could thus explain the negative connotations behind the sense "over-satiated".

However, perhaps we don't need to invoke irony to explain why "fulsome" sometimes acquires positive connotations and other times negative connotations. This lexicographer's lament offers an alternate possibility that "fulsome" would tend to have positive connotations when associated with "full", and negative connotations when associated with "foul"[2]. We all learned to treat "fulsome" as a single word with several meanings, but its etymology could involve an uneasy merger of two homonyms.


  1. Personally, I don't find anything ridiculous about the modern expression "rather full", and I'm not convinced that mid-13th century "fulsom" should be perceived as ridiculously formed at all. ↩︎

  2. In Scottish English, the spellings are (optionally) kept separate. ↩︎

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